The Real CIA News
Interrogations were carefully limited, briefed on Capitol Hill, and yielded information that saved innocent lives.
Whoever advised people to be skeptical of what they read in the papers must have had in mind this week's coverage of the documents about CIA interrogations. Now that we've had a chance to read the reports, it's clear the real story isn't the few cases of abuse played up by the media. The news is that the program was thoughtfully developed, carefully circumscribed, briefed to Congress, and yielded information crucial to disrupting al Qaeda.
In other words, it worked—at least until politics got in the way.
That's the essential judgment offered by former CIA Inspector General John Helgerson in his 2004 report. Some mild criticism aside, the report says the CIA "invested immense time and effort to implement the [program] quickly, effectively, and within the law"; that the agency "generally provided good guidance and support"; and that agency personnel largely "followed guidance and procedures and documented their activities well." So where's the scandal?
Mr. Helgerson describes how the CIA collaborated with the Pentagon, the Justice Department and even outside experts to develop specific guidelines for 10 enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that passed legal muster. The enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) "would be used on 'an as needed basis' and all would not necessarily be used. Further, the EITs were expected to be used 'in some sort of escalating fashion' . . ." The agency had psychologists evaluate al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, to ensure he would not suffer physical or long-term mental harm.
As the program expanded, the CIA "implemented training programs for interrogators and debriefers." By early 2003 it had created guidelines on detention and interrogation and required "individuals engaged in or supporting interrogations be made aware of the guidelines and sign an acknowledgment that they have read them." The guidelines also made "formal the existing . . . practice of requiring the field to obtain specific Headquarters approvals prior to the application of all EITs." This was hardly a rogue CIA.
Congress also knew about it. The IG report belies House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's claims that she wasn't told about all this. "In the fall of 2002, the Agency briefed the leadership of the Congressional Intelligence Oversight Committees on the use of both standard techniques and EITs. . . . Representatives . . . continued to brief the leadership of the Intelligence Oversight Committees on the use of EITs and detentions in February and March 2003. The [CIA] General Counsel says that none of the participants expressed any concern about the techniques or the Program . . ." Ditto in September 2003.
As for examples of "unauthorized techniques," the IG explains that the most "significant"—an accusation that an interrogator threatened a detainee with a gun and a power drill—was the subject of a separate investigation. As for the rest—"the making of threats, blowing cigar smoke, employing certain stress positions, the use of a stiff brush on a detainee, and stepping on a detainee's ankle shackles"—the IG report says the "allegations were disputed or too ambiguous to reach any authoritative determination" and "did not warrant separate investigations or administrative actions."
The most revealing portion of the IG report documents the program's results. The CIA's "detention and interrogation of terrorists has provided intelligence that has enabled the identification and apprehension of other terrorists and warned of terrorist plots planned for the United States and around the world." That included the identification of Jose Padilla and Binyam Muhammed, who planned to detonate a dirty bomb, and the arrest of previously unknown members of an al Qaeda cell in Karachi, Pakistan, designated to pilot an aircraft attack in the U.S. The information also made the CIA aware of plots to attack the U.S. consulate in Karachi, hijack aircraft to fly into Heathrow, loosen track spikes to derail a U.S. train, blow up U.S. gas stations, fly an airplane into a California building, and cut the lines of suspension bridges in New York.
While the report doesn't take a position on the value of enhanced techniques, the facts speak loudly that they caused detainees to yield important information. The report notes that early on Zubaydah provided some information, but that the waterboard resulted in "increased production." It also notes that since the use of the waterboard, "Zubaydah has appeared to be cooperative."
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who planned the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, was not waterboarded. "However," says the report, "following the use of [enhanced techniques], he provided information about his most current operational planning as opposed to the historical information he provided before the use of [enhanced techniques]."
Then there's Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who directed the 9/11 attacks. The report cites him as the "most prolific" provider of information. Yet it later notes that KSM, "an accomplished resistor, provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete." The report explains that KSM was then waterboarded 183 times, and it redacts the rest of the section. This suggests that what interrogators gleaned was valuable enough that it requires classification even today.
This conclusion is buttressed by two other CIA documents released this week, one from 2004 and another from 2005, that outline interrogation results. One provides details of how interrogations brought down Hambali, mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings. KSM provided information about al Qaeda operative Majid Khan, who had been tasked with delivering money to an operative named Jubair. Khan, who had been caught, revealed information to capture Jubair, who divulged that he worked for Hambali, and provided information for Hambali's arrest. KSM then admitted that Hambali's brother was his likely successor, and that brother in turn provided information to take down an entire terrorist cell in Karachi. Hambali admitted these terrorists were to be trained to fly airplanes into U.S. targets.
The two CIA papers don't discuss enhanced interrogation, though the IG report suggests that KSM provided little of this information prior to his waterboarding. Some will argue that these details could have been elicited without enhanced techniques. We'll never know. The question is whether Attorney General Eric Holder and his new special counsel intend to second-guess the decisions of CIA officials who were operating in the shadow of 9/11 and who, we now know, successfully unraveled terror plots and saved lives.
Which brings us to another salient part of the IG report: CIA officials well understood that they might be second-guessed years later by politicians. "During the course of this review, a number of Agency officers expressed unsolicited concern about the possibility of recrimination or legal action resulting from their participation. . . . officers expressed concern that a human rights group might pursue them for activities . . . they feared that the Agency would not stand behind them." Another said, "Ten years from now we're going to be sorry we're doing this . . . [but] it has to be done."
The outrage here isn't that government officials used sometimes rough interrogation methods to break our enemies. The outrage is that, years later, when the political winds have shifted and there hasn't been another attack, our politicians would punish the men and women who did their best to protect Americans in a time of peril.